Chris Johnson seems to fundamentally understand the business of football. And then he doesn’t.
Welcome to the mind of a football player who’s trying to rebuild a deeply fractured psyche, and reassemble his Pro Bowl form. He is an unpredictable creature who will use publicly spoken words to convince himself that his own talent hasn’t declined due to age, injuries, or just general awfulness. He needs to hear those words, because he’s fragile.
Our case study today is Chris Johnson, the Titans running back who had some rather candid comments yesterday during Tennessee’s OTAs that started to gain traction today. Johnson is coming off of a pathetic year by his standards, and the timing of his poor production will likely cost the likes of Ray Rice and Matt Forte, fellow young RBs who are looking for contract extensions, and lucrative long-term security. Johnson rushed for just 1,047 yards last year, which is significantly less than his 2009 total just two seasons ago when he broke the single-season record for yards from scrimmage with 2,509, and 2,006 of those yards came on the ground.
His rapid decline came during a season when the 26-year-old signed a six-year contract worth $53 million, and $30 million guaranteed. Yep, Rice and Forte won’t be attending your pancake social, Chris.
There are several factors that could have contributed to Johnson’s downfall, but none are sufficient enough to explain a tumble of this magnitude. Titans receiver Kenny Britt missed much of the season with an ACL injury, leading to less support from the passing game to make opponents shy away from putting eight men in the box. And Matt Hasselbeck was merely adequate during his first year in Tennessee, finishing with a passer rating of 82.4. He also had six games when he averaged less than six yards per pass attempt.
Johnson senses the palatable doubt about his ability to return to being CJ2K circa 2009, or even 2010 (1,364 rushing yards) and he responded with this:
“I know it is one of those ‘What have you done for me lately?’ situations. People are not going to look at me as the No. 1 running back in the league. There are people out there who aren’t going to give me the respect I deserve. But at the end of the day it doesn’t matter what anybody else thinks.
“I feel I am still the best back in the league, and I have no problem saying that. None of the active backs have done anything that I have done in the first four years, even though I had a bad year last year. So I still feel like I am the best back in the league.”
The first sentence is certainly correct, especially as it applies to the frail running back position. And the fourth sentence is correct too, especially as applies to bloggers who eat Alphaghetti without shame. But that hasn’t stopped me from pointing out gaps in logic yet.
Johnson will defend himself by saying that he has the most rushing yards of any running back over the past four years since he came into the league (which is true: Johnson has 5,645 yards since 2008, while Adrian Peterson is behind him with 5,411).
But championships and playoff appearances aren’t earned on the strength of a four-year stretch. They come with consistently elite production, and while he should be applauded for his confidence, there’s very little reason for us to reciprocate that confidence in Johnson because his decline from that record-breaking year has been so dramatic.
He had only four 100-yard games last year, finishing with a per game rushing average of 65.4 yards. In 2009 he averaged 125.4 yards per game, and he had 12 100-yard games. His per carry average during that year was an incredible 5.6 yards, and that’s since dropped to 4.0. There was also a decline in his ability to make people miss in the open field as a receiver, with his yards after the catch decreasing drastically from 10.8 two seasons ago, to 6.8 now.
By any metric, Johnson was woefully average last year. Sure, that massive year in 2009 earned him a cushion, and expecting him to continue that torrid pace throughout his career is both unrealistic and foolish. But he fell way too far, and there’s no precedent for the spiral we saw last fall that ended with Johnson finishing 14th in rushing yards, surrounded by the likes of Cedric Benson and Shonn Greene. They were good but far from great in 2011, and so was Johnson.
The best running back in the league last year wasn’t some upstart rookie who had a lucky season. It was Maurice Jones-Drew, and he had 559 more rushing yards than Johnson, who’s still No. 1 in his mind, and his mind only.